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Bring Back Bungalow Colonies

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Summer is here and, with it, the Hot Town, Summer In the City humidity and resulting torpor. The lucky ones have planned vacations and sent their kids to cool, expensive and themed camps. The not-so-lucky are plotting stay-cations as a way of taking off and saving money.

Back in the day, there was another, middle option. Many real New Yorkers of a certain age will recall that the end of the school year meant packing up and leaving the hot, sweaty city and traveling 80 to 110 miles to the cool, higher elevations of Sullivan and Ulster County, New York. This is the region known as the Catskills, named after a series of rounded, eastern "mountains" (hills, really). Before the popularization of air travel, before wide-spread availability of air-conditioning, and before travel destinations became sophisticated, New York families with a few bucks either stayed at a Catskills hotel (relatively expensive) or a bungalow colony.

In the '50s and '60s, a big bungalow suitable for a large family could be rented from late June through Labor Day for less than $800. Bear in mind that rent-controlled apartments of that era rented for under $100 a month, so $800 was still a chunk of change.

The bungalow colony was typically run by a married couple, an eastern ethnic version of a KOA manager team. There was a "main house" where the owners lived, operated a small concession store (the "quickie mart" of the day), and where older couples rented small efficiency units.

There was also a "casino," a larger, one-room cabin where kids did their rainy day puzzles, drawing, and Nok Hockey playing during the week -- and where parents drank, danced and watched old movie "tear jerkers" (anyone care to see Tyrone Power and Kim Novak in The Eddie Duchin Story?) on weekend evenings.

Around the grounds were small one- to three-bedroom furnished bungalows. These were efficiency units with utilitarian kitchens, a sitting room and a little land outside for sitting and "cooking out" (barbequing). There was typically a ball field, a few ponds, a handball wall, basketball courts, swimming pool and an area known as "the woods." Dotting the grounds were Adirondack chairs and wooden picnic tables, where older men and women played card games and Mah Jongg.

I'll be continuing a reminiscence of those Catskill Mountain, bungalow colony days, as I am completing another short story set up in Sullivan County, but I want to leave you with this understanding of what that summertime life was about:

There was no radio, no TV, no Internet, no video games or electronics of any sort.

There were usually three generations of residents in the bungalow colonies. The seniors relaxed and kibitzed all day, or picked blueberries, made homemade wine and tended the little ones so the moms could get some quality poolside time.

As for the kids? In the morning, kids had breakfast and left the bungalow. They were gone all day. No supervised activities to speak of. They made their own fun, swimming, making forts out of ferns, playing ball, or enjoying a game of Monopoly under a shady tree. Finally, the kids came home for dinner, got bathed, and went out again, to play tag, catch fireflies, or just goof around.

The great social commentator and journalist Lenore Skenazy refers to this phenomenon of laissez faire child-rearing as "the free range kid."

The dads left for the City on Sunday evening after dinner and drove back to their outer borough apartments. With no wives or kids, they worked and then did whatever it was they did (the dads back then were hardly of the Don Draper mold).

The moms gossiped, fed the kids, did light house work, went to the town (e.g., Monticello or Liberty) and shopped, or bought goods from tradesmen who came to each bungalow colony in trucks and specially rigged autos.

Friday night was huge, as -- one-by-one -- the dads drove up the driveway after a long journey from the hot city to "the country." "Ah, that country air," they'd exclaim, kissing their wives, hugging their kids, lighting cigars and taking a cold beer with the other couples now reunited again for a few days.

Simpler times, for sure. And they were happy times, where the kids of the day learned self-reliance and how to succeed socially (and flop spectacularly -- and get back up), and where they burned up thousands of calories a day running around "like wild Indians" as the bungalow colony elders would say, in their un-PC way.

Imagine that. Kids acting like kids. Happily. And without a camp counselor in sight.